Boutwell: The history of Lucha Libre, Part 1

The History of Lucha Libre: Part 1
January 23, 2015
By: Josh Boutwell of Wrestleview.com

In the late 1800’s or early 1900’s two Italian businessmen began promoting bare knuckle fights with very little rules in Mexico called “lucha libre” (or free fight) events with the fighters known as “luchadors” (fighters). These “free fights” became very popular in certain places in Mexico but the violence was a bit too much for some.

In 1929 a former Mexican Revolution veteran and businessman, Salvador Lutteroth, began attending professional wrestling events in El Paso, Texas as he lived across the border in Ciudad Juarez. Mr. Lutteroth was enamored by what he saw, especially Greek wrestler Gus Pappas, and Lutteroth approached business partners to help fund his very own wrestling event. On September 21, 1933 the first wrestling event, or “lucha libre” event, to be held in Mexico under the “Empresa Mexican de la Lucha Libre” and EMLL (later CMLL) was born.

Lutteroth began running more and more events under the EMLL banner and lucha libre quickly caught on with Mexican fans and by the companies first year anniversary EMLL was hosting 5,000 or more fans to their events. Then in 1934 Lutteroth took an unknown American wrestler and put him under a mask calling him Maravilla Enmascarda (Masked Marvel) becoming a massive success for the early days of EMLL. The Mexican fans took to the masked wrestlers, who they saw as real life super heroes and villains in a time where comic book heroes were a big part of pop culture, and with many of these masked stars playing on Mexican culture with the similarities to that of ceremonial masks that were worn by the Aztecs and Mayans lucha libre exploded. In the early 40’s Lutteroth discovered a very young luchador wrestling under a plain silver mask, known as El Santo, and Santo would go on to become the most popular luchador in the history of Mexican wrestling. Santo’s place in Mexican pop culture was so massive that he would transcended wrestling becoming a movie star and even comic book star during his run on top.

Santo was to Mexican wrestling in terms of significance and box office sales what Hulk Hogan was to America in the 80’s. Santo was a modern day Mexican hero and his many battles with the evil villains the likes of Gori Guerrero, Black Shadow, and Blue Demon were the things of legend. In the 40’s and 50’s Lutteroth did something unprecedented in wrestling, he built his own arenas. Lutteroth constructed Arena Coliseo and Arena Mexico in Mexico City to host his EMLL events adding even more financial gains for he and his company due to not having to rental fees to other venues or having to worry about scheduling conflicts (in the early days of EMLL Lutteroth had many problems renting the bigger major arenas in Mexico City due to boxing promoters blackballing him). The modern Arena Mexico and the explosion of television in the 50’s gave Lutteroth the chance to promote and feature his brand of wrestling on national TV leading to an explosion of popularity for EMLL and Santo which saw it rival that of the national sport, Soccer.

Something else that helped Lucha Libre gain traction with the fans was its athletic, exciting style of in-ring action. At a time when American and Japanese wrestling was primarily focused on much bigger and slower paced/power based wrestlers luchadors were flying around and keeping up a pace that no other part of the world was doing. It wasn’t near the type of high flying we are used to today but it was revolutionary in the 40’s and 50’s. Many of the top luchadors would also trained with “catch” or amateur wrestlers from America or Europe to add mat wrestling and submissions to their aerial attacks. Another thing unique to lucha libre was that of Mask vs. Mask matches. The mask was such a massive part of lucha libre that the ultimate end to a major rivalry was a match to take place where both masked stars put their mask, or as some saw it their careers and their identities, on the line. There wasn’t anything more disrespectful in the world of lucha libre than to take the mask of an emascardo (masked luchador). This would lead to rudos (or heels) to begin ripping and tearing at tecnico (babyface) luchadors masks to get more heat from the ravenous fans. Mask vs. Mask Matches would eventually lead to Hair vs. Hair and Mask vs. Hair Matches where unmasked wrestlers would wager their hair, being shaved if they lost, as well adding to the heat. Lucha Libre also focused much more on trios (six man tag team) and atomicos (8-man tag team) matches resulting in luchadors being able to pull off impressive and creative double and triple team moves.

For decades EMLL had dominating lucha libre in Mexico with very few actual rivals to their dominance, but all that changed in the 1970’s. Many of EMLL’s stars had grown tired of EMLL’s conservative booking at the time as well as lack of focus on younger wrestlers leading to a group of wrestlers and bookers including the legendary Ray Mendoza and promoter/booker Francisco Flores to join investors in forming their own promotion called Lucha Libre Internacional (LLI) which would later become known as the UWA (Universal Wrestling Association). Flores had been EMLL’s local promoter for the Naucalpan region which immediately made UWA a rival to EMLL in both Naucalpan and Mexico City especially considering Mendoza brought with him many of EMLL’s young stars like Rene Guajardo and Karloff Lagarde.

UWA’s more modern style of booking along with the focus of young luchadors like Mendoza’s sons Los Villanos, El Canek, Dos Caras, Fishman, Perro Aguayo, and others made them extremely popular with the Mexican audience. UWA then struck working relationships with the biggest wrestling promotions in both Japan (New Japan Pro Wrestling) and America (World Wrestling Federation) which saw stars like Hulk Hogan, Tatsumi Fujinami, Andre The Giant, and Antonio Inoki come to the UWA. UWA’s relationship with the WWF even led to the WWF allowing the promotion to promote and defend its own WWF branded championship, the WWF World Light Heavyweight Championship, which saw stars like Perro Aguayo, Fishman, Chris Adams, Villano III, Gran Hamada, and others hold the championship in Mexico. In the 80’s EMLL’s biggest star El Santo even worked with UWA at the end of his career in the early 80’s. In fact Santo’s very final match took place in a UWA ring in September of 1982 when he teamed with his former rival and partner Gory Guerrero along with El Solitario and Huracan Ramirez against the younger group of luchadors: Perro Aguayo, El Signo, El Texano, and Negro Navarro.

The appearance of Santo and other CMLL stars signified a bit of a truce between the rival promotions as they began cross promoting events and trading talent. This alliance would eventually become UWA’s downfall as CMLL would offer much more money to UWA’s talent to get them to leave the promotion leaving UWA crippled financially because of the lack of star talented eventually leading to the close of UWA completely in the early 90’s. Despite the UWA’s fall the promotion is still very fondly rememberd by lucha fans as the place that many of the 80’s and 90’s stars got their first start as well as where the 2/3 Falls Match was made much prevalent in lucha libre as the primary match type.

Just as EMLL had got finished fighting off the UWA another promotion jumped up to take them on and again it was a promotion that splintered off of CMLL just as UWA had. Antonio Pena had become one of the top rudos in the 1980’s as the masked Kahoz attributed primarily to his evil, unique look and his entrance to the ring. Kahoz would take with him a bag of live pigeons to the ring and then would release the birds in the arena while simultaneously pulling out a fake pigeon. He would then rip the head off of the pigeon and smear fake blood all over himself leaving the audience in shock. Eventually Pena’s body could not hold up to the rigors of professional wrestling and he retired from the ring taking on a backstage role in CMLL as one of the promotions primary bookers. Pena’s vast wrestling knowledge and creative mind helped him create some of lucha libre’s most recognizable characters. Pena and CMLL head booker Juan Herrera were the primary forces of CMLL’s boom on TV in the 80’s as well as rebranding EMLL to CMLL as well as creating the minis division which continues to be one of the more popular aspects of lucha libre today.

Eventually Pena and Herrera began to butt heads over the future of the promotion with Pena wanting to focus more on athletic, younger stars and Herrera wanting to continue to focus the main event more on heavyweights and old school way of booking. At this point Paco Alonso, the son-in-law of Salvadaor Lutteroth, was the man in charge at CMLL and he sided with Herrera over the booking style CMLL would take. This led to Pena leaving CMLL and begin working to create his own rival promotion. Pena approached Mexican television network Televisa with his booking ideas and the network helped fund Pena’s new Asistencia Aseroria y Administracion (or AAA, now just simply known as Triple A) promotion. Pena brought with him to AAA many of the young, more athletic luchadors that he had wanted to push in CMLL like Konnan, El Hijo del Santo, Octagon, Blue Panther, Negro Casas, and a wrestler going by the name of Mascara Magica. Mascara Magica was actually the son of the legendary Gory Guerrero, Eddie Guerrero, was frustrated in CMLL having to work under a mask while he just simply wanted to work unmasked like his father and brothers had. These stars along with colorful new talent like La Parka and young incredibly athletes like Rey Misterio Jr., Psicosis, and Juventud Guerrera had never been featured nationaly in Mexico led to AAA becoming a true competitor to CMLL. Misterio would eventually become the biggest lucahdor in the history of Mexico, owing mostly to his success in America, rivaling that of El Santo. He, Alberto del Rio, and Eddie Guerrero are the only two lucahdors to ever win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. AAA lost many of its top talent to WCW in the 90’s which hurt the promotion pretty massively and then along came a star in the early 2000’s by the name of Mistico would became the biggest box office draw in the country in decades. Even he would eventually leave Mexico to join the WWE, but has since returned but rather than rejoin his CMLL home he instead jumped ship to AAA. Former WWE Champion Alberto del Rio has recently jumped ship to AAA as well giving the promotion, along with its Lucha Underground TV show in America, a resurgence as potentially the top promotion in Mexico.

Over the years various other promotions have popped up but none have been able to jump up to the significance of that of AAA or CMLL, the two biggest wrestling promotions in Mexico. Both promotions have their issues but AAA continues to remain more on the relevant, modern day side of things while CMLL struggles with being stuck in the past and the old way of doing things. Neither promotion has taken advantage of the internet as they should but AAA has taken steps at getting better. It is mind blowing that neither AAA nor CMLL has online stores to sell their merchandise worldwide but AAA has offered some merchandise to the international market in recent years including a video game a few years ago while CMLL doesn’t even feel television is key to their growth. While AAA has ventured into America with the Lucha Underground promotion and that promotions television deal with the English language network El Rey, CMLL has allowed more than one of their television deals to lapse because CMLL feels that they don’t need TV or the internet to promote their events and if fans feel they have to go to the arenas to see the shows rather than being able to watch them on TV then it will increase attendance. It hasn’t. Regardless lucha libre remains one of the most popular forms of sports or entertainment in Mexico and with it being featuring more on American television and with the growth of the internet it is becoming more and more popular around the world. Japanese promotions Michinoku Pro and Dragon Gate are considered a blend of Japanese wrestling and lucha as is American promotion CHIKARA, lucha libre will just get bigger globally.